For Black Kids Who Dare to Dream Themselves Heroes
by S. R. Toliver
Us white girls, who grew up with Little Mermaid, deserved a true-to-color Ariel. Disney, you made a huge mistake by hiring Halle Bailey. This is going in the TRASH.
I love diversity and all but Hollywood is looking ridiculous right now. A BLACK MARY JANE! REALLY!
Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you picture.
Anyone notice the reverse racism thing they kinda did [in Animorphs]?…The black person is the only one who survives in this story!
I was five years old when I had my first interaction with racism in speculative fiction fandom. I was living in Omaha, Nebraska at the time, and I was invited to a superhero costume party hosted by one of my neighborhood friends. As a lover of all things science fiction and fantasy, I stressed for weeks, trying to figure out which superhero most aligned with who I was, which heroic figure represented the inner champion I knew myself to be. After weeks of thought and agonizing decision-making processes, I decided that I should be Wonder Woman. She stood for truth, justice, and equality to people everywhere. She encouraged women to stand up and fight, to be strong in a world filled with male superheroes. She had enhanced stamina, speed, and reflexes, and she flew around in an invisible jet. I just had to be her, because I believed that I stood for everything she fought for in the TV show… and I wanted all of her superpowers. So, I found the perfect costume and walked down the street to the party, ready to bask in the praise of my childhood friends for my amazing and thoughtful costume.
I beamed as I entered the party, excitement dripping from my pores. Then, without prompting for an opinion, I heard the children’s comments:
“She can’t be Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman doesn’t look like… that.”
“Wonder Woman is white. You’re not white. You should be Storm or something.”
“Wonder Woman doesn’t have a color, so you should be someone with a color.”
“You don’t match Wonder Woman. Look! The color is different!”
“What about Storm?”
“I think you should just be Storm.”
Young Black people are dreaming of becoming superheroes, of building advanced technology, of creating and supporting the vitality of this world and the next, and of seeing futures where they exist. They are hoping for new futures where they are a part of the solution, not continuously positioned as the problem
I plastered a smile on my face for the rest of the party, masking the sadness I felt so I didn’t drown the party in my tears. I could have called my mom to come and get me. I could have walked home. But I was too ashamed to leave. I knew my skin color was different from every other person at the party – child and adult – but I didn’t think it meant anything. We could all be superheroes. We could all aspire to becoming a super being responsible for chasing the bad guys and saving the world. We could all imagine ourselves in futures and other worlds where people had powers and humans could create advanced technology that could provide others with the tools they needed to make the world a better place for all. We could all dream. Right?
What I learned that day, however, is that some young people are not allowed to dream, think of themselves in the future, or visualize themselves as people who exist beyond the present moment. For some of us, the future is positioned as an unobtainable thing, something we can watch others participate in from afar as we wither and die in the past.
After that incident, I kept my love of speculative fiction to myself. I watched science fiction TV shows like Star Trek and The Secret World of Alex Mack, and I religiously followed speculative anime like Yu Yu Hakusho and Inuyasha. I read speculative fiction books, like K.A. Applegates’ Animorphs series, as well as Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind: The Kids series (NB- reread them… they definitely read like science fiction novels). Still, my love of the speculative was left at home, locked behind a door of safety where no one could laugh at the fact that I dream, too. No one would point and say that I must have a specific dream for my life just because I was a Black girl who dared to appreciate the existence of futures where, perhaps, I could be present. No one would tell me that my dream is irrational because, in my room, Black people were superheroes. In my imagination, Black people were magic wielders and technological geniuses. In the safety of my home, Black people existed in the future. But out there, Black futures…my future… were not guaranteed. Out there, a positive, futuristic Black existence was not allowed.
My story is not unique. For years, young Black people have had to hide their love of the speculative and deal with people who tell them to “stay in their lane” or stick to problem/issue books rather than those that attend to the existence of futures and other worlds. For years, Black youth have had to witness the disparagement of Black actors cast in speculative television and film, as their existence as characters isn’t considered plausible. For years, authors have envisioned how the future might look if humanity solved major contemporary and social issues, and Black readers have had to wonder why and how the issue of racism survived. There can be singing sea creatures, all-powerful gods, and killer sporting events, but no Black people. There can be anthropomorphic tech, magic-wielding humans, orc-like villains, and energy-efficient alien planets, but no Black people. There can be a text, entirely grounded in the imaginative powers of the author, equipped with new worlds, new human customs, new skin colors, new ways of living and existing on the planet, but no Black people. Black presence in the future is somehow considered inaccurate, implausible, intolerable.
It is for this reason that the inclusion of Black youth in future-oriented fiction is critical. Young Black people are dreaming of becoming superheroes, of building advanced technology, of creating and supporting the vitality of this world and the next, and of seeing futures where they exist. They are hoping for new futures where they are a part of the solution, not continuously positioned as the problem. Black youth are imagining future worlds where social, economic, and environmental sustainability includes the maintenance of Black culture, Black community, and Black life. They need visions of Black people thriving in the future. They need to know that their future existence is not erroneous, unbelievable, or unacceptable.
Moreover, young Black readers need to know that their dreams for the future are valid and welcomed, and that they don’t need to hide their dreams just because the world decides that their futures must fit into a box created for those who look like them. They need stories where they can see Black characters who stand for truth, justice, and equality to people everywhere. They need future worlds where Black characters have enhanced stamina, speed, and reflexes, and fly around in invisible jets. They need to know that future-oriented fiction that supports egalitarianism, anti-capitalism, environmental sustainability, decentralization, and social inclusiveness also supports the eradication of antiblack racism. They need to see the creation of future worlds where they are uplifted as necessary participants in the future.
They can be Ariel.
They can be Heimdall.
They can be Wonder Woman.
They can be Mary Jane.
They can be James Bond.
They can be elves.
They can be Rue.
They can live in the future.
They can dream themselves heroes.
And no one will tell them otherwise.
S. R. Toliver (she/her) is an assistant professor of Literacy and Secondary Humanities at the University of Colorado, Boulder whose scholarship centers the freedom dreams of Black youth and honors the historical legacy that Black imaginations have had and will have on activism and social change. She is the author of Recovering Black Storytelling in Qualitative Research: Endarkened Storywork, and her work has been published in HuffPost, Blavity, and LitHub.